The 100-Year-Old Ivy Lee Time Management Method That Is Still Relevant

Written by: Ron Scheese

The Twenty-Five Thousand Dollar Solution

A blog post by Ron Scheese, President & CEO of Andesa Services.

Perhaps the best business advice I ever received I refer to as the $25,000 solution.  I do not recall in which book or magazine I first heard the story of Ivy Lee’s method, but it was early in my career and I have followed a version of the model fairly faithfully.

The story is said to have occurred in 1918, nearly 100 years ago.  Ivy Lee is often considered the father of modern-day public relations. Bethlehem Steel, located nearby Andesa Services’ Allentown, PA, headquarters, was a client of his firm. Businessman and steel magnate Charles M. Schwab (not the Charles R. Schwab of financial investing fame) was then President of Bethlehem Steel and was frustrated with inefficiency. His attempts to improve productivity had not yielded results.
Lee promised he could help the company if Schwab would give him 15 minutes each day with his managers. He proposed that his fee would be what Schwab believed the value of his efforts to be after three months.  With little to lose, Schwab agreed.

Lee taught the managers a simple method.

  1. At the end of each day, write down the six most important things you need to do tomorrow. No more than six.
  2. Prioritize those six items in order of importance.
  3. The next morning, begin working on the first – most important – task. Work until that task is finished before moving to the second task.
  4. Work through the list in priority order, completing as many tasks as possible.
  5. Repeat this process every day. If you have not completed the list, consider if the unfinished item should be on tomorrow’s list and what priority.

That’s it.  That’s the simple solution which has today become the Ivy Lee method of time management.

Allow me to share a couple observations based on my experiences over the years.

  • Make the model work for your environment.

    If you attend meetings, put them on the list. It may mean you are unfinished with task three for the day when meeting at task four is due. Go to your meeting, come back and pick task three back up.  Clearly a violation of the pure Lee model, but make it work for you.   It may also challenge you to think about the meetings you attend.  Are they important?  Do you need to attend?  Would it be on your “To Do” list if it hadn’t been on your calendar first?

  • Limit your number of daily tasks

    Andesa recently had our leadership team complete the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment process. Through this initiative, we learned that over half of our leaders have the talent “Achiever” as one of their top five strengths in their profile. Achievers are described by Gallup as ones who “work hard and possess a great deal of stamina.  They take immense satisfaction in being busy and productive.”  Upon further reflections, we described these individuals as list-makers and “achievement-junkies.”  The caution is there is always more work to do. Gallup warns that high “Achievers” may have to guard against trying to do too much and possibly burn out themselves or their teams.  The Ivy Lee method of limiting daily tasks to six important things may mitigate this risk on a short-term basis.

  • The model may be less effective in strategic tasks

    The approach is definitely more tactical in nature than strategic (unless strategic planning/problem-solving is one of the tasks on the daily list). My experience is that it will help accomplish more on a regular basis and focus attention on that which is urgent. As my responsibilities expanded and the work became more strategic in nature, the less effective I felt the model has been.  I still rely on it for many a day’s to-do list, but I do recognize limitations in its application.

  • Documenting your progress may improve self-satisfaction

    Finally, and I don’t know why this is, but the more I used the model and made it a daily ritual, the better I felt about myself. Some days, all six things would be crossed off the list and some days only two or three.  But with each day, progress was being made. Perhaps there was a higher degree of focus on the important, but I definitely experience an emotional high when the list is accomplished. I certainly have a higher degree of self-satisfaction at the end of a week.  That boost re-enforces the approach.  It has become a life-long habit and perhaps the best advice I have ever received.

To finish the Bethlehem Steel story, at the end of the three months Charles M. Schwab wrote a check for $25,000 to Ivy Lee for his advice; the equivalent of approximately $400,000 in today’s dollars.

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